Ryan to Obama: 'Leadership should come from the top’

Republicans confronted President Obama at the White House on Wednesday, accusing him of a lack of leadership during the nation’s fiscal crisis.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he wanted to “clear the air” over the president’s attack on his budget plan.

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The most dramatic moment of the meeting came when Ryan told Obama he was wrong to characterize Republicans as turning their backs on children and senior citizens, lawmakers said.

Ryan told the president, “Leadership should come from the top,” according to Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who was there. Ryan also called out the president for his speech at George Washington University in April, during which he castigated the Republican budget in harsh terms while Ryan sat just a few feet away.

GOP leaders said Wednesday’s White House meeting, which lasted over an hour, was “frank” and “productive.” 

Republicans have for weeks complained that Democrats are engaging in a coordinated “Mediscare” campaign to mischaracterize the GOP budget as turning Medicare into a voucher program for seniors. Democrats have doubled down on their critique in the days since their upset victory in a special election in upstate New York, where even Republicans acknowledged the Medicare issue played a role.

“As far as Medicare is concerned, we wanted to make sure the president understood the facts about our proposal so he doesn’t continue to mischaracterize it. We just needed to clear the air,” Ryan told reporters at the Capitol. He did not describe his exchange with Obama in detail.

King said Ryan stopped short of directly accusing Obama of demagoguing the issue but that he was “politely critical” of the president. “Obviously we disagree. Ours was a good proposal,” King paraphrased the House Budget Committee chairman as saying. “It was wrong to accuse us of turning our backs on autistic children or putting senior citizens out on the street.”

Several lawmakers confirmed the tone of Ryan’s comments and said Obama responded by suggesting that both sides had engaged in demagoguery.

“I could tell the president was nervous, because when he’s nervous, he talks on and on. Everybody else he gave about a three- or four-minute answer to. To Paul Ryan it was about 20 minutes,” freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.

King said that earlier in the meeting, Obama tried to point out, in a lighthearted way, that Republicans were guilty of mischaracterizing him as well. “He said, ‘As someone who’s a socialist, who wants to have government-run healthcare … and whose birth certificate is being questioned, I can empathize with that,’ ” King said.

On the issue of Medicare, the White House offered no rhetorical concessions. Asked if Obama would stop calling the Ryan plan a voucher program, press secretary Jay Carney replied: “What you call it doesn’t change what it is and what it does. It is a voucher plan.”

Carney said the criticisms from Obama, who will meet with House Democrats on Wednesday, are not “a matter of demagoguery.”

Republicans emerged from the meeting with mixed feelings about what it accomplished. Members of the leadership team and committee chairmen said it was significant that Obama acknowledged that entitlement reforms would be included in a broad agreement to reduce the deficit and lift the debt ceiling — something Republicans have demanded but Democrats have resisted.

“The president was pretty clear about that, putting entitlement reform in the debt limit,” Ryan said.

GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said Obama “said there needs to be entitlement reform” and that he wants to find “real cuts now.”

Some members of the freshman class, however, voiced more frustration. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said he came out of the meeting feeling “we didn’t make any progress.” He suggested the fiscal debate had already devolved into campaign-season politics. “We feel like it’s 2012 right now. We want to actually do something in 2011,” Kinzinger said.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Landry (La.), rejected the White House invitation altogether. “I don’t intend to spend my morning being lectured to by a president whose failed policies have put our children and grandchildren in a huge burden of debt,” he said in a statement.

The meeting came a day after the House overwhelmingly voted down an unconditional increase in the $14.3 trillion federal debt limit. Vice President Biden is leading bipartisan talks on a deal to authorize more borrowing while making significant spending cuts and structural reforms.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said that he has instructed his members to hold steady on preserving the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and more affluent taxpayers, saying “it’s counterintuitive to believe you’re going to raise taxes on certain entities and individuals you’re expecting to create jobs.”

Cantor said the president pushed them on his theme of investment in the future, but Cantor said “to a lot of us that’s code for more Washington spending, and that’s something we can’t afford right now.”

Asked later by The Hill if Obama had signaled any willingness to bend on taxes, Cantor laughed before saying, “No.”

Other Republicans after the meeting scoffed at Obama, whom they said had mentioned that tax rates were higher during the Reagan era. That claim generated a lot of “eye-rolling” from Republicans, one member said.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) joked that during the meeting, “We learned we had the lowest tax rates in history … lower than Reagan!”

Republicans and the White House face an Aug. 2 deadline set by the Treasury Department to reach a deal on raising the debt ceiling. If the ceiling isn’t raised, the U.S. could default, and Treasury has warned of calamitous economic effects.

Andrew Restuccia contributed.

This story was originally posted at 4:30 p.m. and has been updated at 8:25 p.m.